How to Make Sure Your Commitments Match Your Convictions

How to Make Your Commitments Match Your Convictions

Harvard Business Review’s 2005 article, “Do Your Commitments Match Your Convictions?” holds even more true today than it did in the pre-social media era when it was published.  In their research, professors Donald N. Sull (MIT-Sloan) and Dominic Houlder (London Business School) identify a societal phenomenon and outline a powerful self-authorship tool that has stayed with me to this day.

The Growing Gap Between What We Value And How We Spend Time, Money and Attention

For many of us, there is a growing gap between our convictions – what we value most – and our commitments – how we actually spend our money, time, and attention. We explain away the gap by claiming that we are “too busy.”

Contrary to what we believe, it’s usually not the “big” obligations that make us “too busy.” It’s the small, day-to-day commitments that we barely notice. Measuring ourselves against other people’s expectations – and a track record of meeting or exceeding their expectations – further reinforces the gap. This is why it is so hard – and often takes a personal or professional crisis – to force us to re-evaluate our priorities and change course.

But why wait? We can use same prioritization framework we instinctively apply during a crisis to close the gap before a crisis hits.

A Simple Prioritization Framework

The Sull and Houlder framework is simple, yet surprisingly effective:

Here’s how it works. (The article also features a sample worksheet, including annotations.)

1. First, list the things that matter most to you in all dimensions of your life (professional, family, social, spiritual, individual, etc.).

Be as specific as possible! For example, “money” may represent different values for you. Is it a metric of success (e.g., making more than your law school classmates)? Is it a means to a goal (e.g., retiring early and travelling the world)? And which value is most important?

While there is no ideal number of values, generally a list between 4 and 10 is sufficient to address different areas while maintaining a focus on top priorities. There are also no “good” or “bad” values. The authors note that for the exercise to be effective “it’s not about what you (or others) think you should value – but in what really matters to you.”

2. Second, note down how much money, time, and the quality of physical and mental energy you invest in each area.

Money and time can either be denoted in actual amounts or percentages. Energy is denoted by a “+” or a “–” sign to indicate peak attention to or low energy or focus (e.g., multitasking) on an activity.

3. Third, review your list with a critical (examining and curious, not judgmental!) eye.

Do the most important values get the most money, time, and energy? Was there a lot of time or money that you could not account for?  Are you devoting your peak energy to what is most important?

This exercise can help you identify new (or revised) commitments that align more closely with your convictions. The authors advise relinquishing or renegotiating one old commitment for every new one. Beware of making unrealistic commitments that are bound to fail and the “clutter trap,” i.e., forgetting to let go of old commitments as we take on new ones.

Above all, remember that taking control of your future commitments will ensure that your past commitments don’t control you.

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